Woman covers face while having a panic attack in public.

Understanding Panic Attacks: 6 Symptoms to Recognize

The words “panic” or “panic attack” are so often used, but what do they really mean? Many of us understand, and are aware of, the feeling of anxiety (the emotional reaction to fear). But many people don’t know when they’re having a panic attack. And instead, the physical symptoms are believed to be indications of a medical problem.

It is typical for panic attacks to be diagnosed by medical doctors in emergency rooms where people present with what they believe are heart attacks. Panic attacks can be very scary and if you don’t understand why your body is doing what it is, it could seem like there is a medical problem.

Anyone who watches nature shows knows that animals have amazing instincts to protect themselves. Take the Cuttlefish for example. When threatened by a predator, not only can this octopus-like mollusk emit ink to ward off danger, it can camouflage and change its shape to blend in with the appearance and texture of its surroundings. Just like other species of animals, we are built with instincts and biological responses to danger. When a threat is perceived, our nervous system reacts with the fight -flight response; meaning the body gears up to either flee the situation or fight whatever we need to.

The following list explains some of the physical symptoms that are experienced during a panic attack and their biological purpose to protect us in the event of danger:

1. Increased Heart Rate

One of the most commonly reported symptoms is an increase in heart rate. In a situation where one must fight or flee, the large muscles need more oxygen, which they get from the blood flowing from our heart. So an increase in heart rate gets the oxygen to the muscles more quickly. Blood flow also changes as the flow becomes more concentrated to the large muscles and less to the areas of the body where blood is not needed, such as the extremities. Another way this helps is if one was to fight, and were to lose or injure an extremity, there will be less blood lost. As a result, fingers, hands, and feet may look paler, feel cold to touch, and one may notice a tingling sensation.  At times, blood supply to the head may decrease, causing one to feel dizzy, have blurred vision, or confusion.

2. Faster & Deeper Breathing

During panic, breathing becomes faster and deeper. As mentioned above, the body and muscles need more oxygen. The change in breathing pattern could cause breathlessness or tightness in the chest.

3. Perspiration

Perspiration increases during this response. This allows the body to become more slippery and possibly escape a predator more easily.

4. Pupils Widen

To allow more light in and expand the field of vision, the pupils widen. Although this increase in range of vision could be helpful in the search for danger, it may also lead to blurred vision or sensitivity to the light.

5. Dry Mouth

At some point one may notice their mouth is dry or a decrease in salivation. To provide more energy to the muscles that need it during this response, the digestive system slows down. This may also cause nausea, stomach discomfort, and even diarrhea, which may be unneeded material in a dangerous situation.

6. Brain Releases Natural Analgesics

In a fight situation, the brain releases natural analgesics or pain killers which dull pain and enable one to continue fighting or fleeing despite injury. In addition, coagulants and lymphocytes are released into the blood to help seal wounds and repair tissue damage.

So you can see that the physical symptoms which occur during a panic attack are meant to protect us and are not dangerous in any way. What seems scary and abnormal is when panic attacks occur without the appearance of evident danger. Although they may appear out of the blue, panic attacks can result from mounting daily stress or from anxiety about having more panic attacks. Unfortunately, if left untreated, these attacks can occur more often and impact quality of life. Luckily there are many effective treatments, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which can help individuals gain control of their panic attacks.   

If you are a mom and interested in learning more about gaining control of panic or anxiety please explore the Moms With Anxiety Group at the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy. This is a small, confidential, and supportive group that meets to explore and discuss skills to cope with anxiety or stress related to being a mother and balancing all that comes our way.